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A Tool for Stations

Gary Penkala

The most common devotional practice during Lent is praying the Stations of the Cross. The most common hymn for Stations is an English translation of the Stabat Mater. The most common tune used for this is also called Stabat Mater, from the Mainz Gesangbuch. There are 20 verses to this hymn, and very often they're all incorporated into the 14 Stations of the Cross, with the extras being used at the beginning or end. If an organist plays every Friday in Lent that's 120 verses of the same hymn to play. I actually have 3 sets of Stations each Friday, so my total is 360! How does one keep that fresh?

I think Chris Bord has the answer in a CNP publication called At the Cross Her Station Keeping. Here he gives 14 different harmonizations of the tune, settings that are very simple, always with the melody on top, but varied enough to make them interesting. This book keeps me sane playing three sets of Stations every Friday of Lent — and, mind you, that's the only organ music I play, since we don't do any solo organ literature during Lent, apart from Laetare Sunday.

Here's what the composer writes in the Foreword:

These fourteen alternate accompaniments to the traditional Stabat Mater tune were written over the course of several years, based on some original improvisations. The goal in writing them was to provide simple accompaniments that would not draw attention to the organ, but that might instead assist the faithful in their meditations upon the various stations. While they are certainly not "program music," they do derive some of their form from the action of the station. I suggest using the same registration throughout - just enough to support the number of people being accompanied, primarily with 8 and 4 foot flute stops.

Below, I offer some thoughts on the subtlety and appropriateness of each accompaniment. Consider how this music might influence your congregation's appreciation of this devotion. Can it help them walk more fully with the Lord on his way to Calvary?

station_1 The First Station: Jesus is condemned to death
This verse is uniform and consonant, starting in F Major, ending in F Major, and using consistent quarter-note motion throughout. The analogy with the stoic prescriptions of civil law is apparent. Pilate's condemnation, in his own mind at least, was as inevitable as each recurring equivalent pulse.
station_2 The Second Station: Jesus carries His cross
The quarter-note uniformity is broken in the pedal. It now moves in half notes, which ascend in melodic thirds. The harmony moves from d minor to F Major.
station_3 The Third Station: Jesus falls the first time
This verse begins in d minor, and the Savior's fall under the weight of the cross is signified by a pedalpoint — a low D that only resolves on the last note, supporting an F chord. The motion of the top three voices is stricly quarter notes.
station_4 The Fourth Station: Jesus meets his sorrowful Mother
The bitter sword that pierced the heart of the Virgin Mary is represented by the dissonances in almost every chord. Not at all jarring, added sixths and sevenths flow easily from one chord to another, coming to rest on a final F Major chord. As in all the Stations where women are prominent, the pedal is omitted, and the verse is played only on manuals.
station_5 The Fifth Station: Simon the Cyrenean helps carry the cross
Perhaps here the labored walking of two men carrying a heavy load can be heard in the accompanying voices, with their tenacious rhythm of half note and two quarter notes.
station_6 The Sixth Station: Veronica wipes the face of Jesus
Here we return to simplicity — F Major beginning and ending, quarter note motion, pure primary chords. And, of course, with a women actively involved in this Station, the music is for manuals alone.
station_7 The Seventh Station: Jesus falls the second time
Like in the first fall, a low D pedalpoint is present. Now, however, the two middle voices, rather than moving in quarter notes, are slowed. In fact, the rhythm from the Fifth station_(Simon of Cyrene) recurs and we see a pattern of half note and two quarter notes. The harmony resolves to F Major at the end, and the pedal can easily be taken to E and then to the initial D pedalpoint if the setting needs to be repeated to accommodate another verse (generally inserted here to allow the priest to walk across the back of the church to station_8).
station_8 The Eighth Station: Jesus comforts the women of Jerusalem
As might be expected, this is a manual-only setting. The frequent pattern of d minor moving to F Major is seen here. The women's tears may be shown in the only instance of the flatted seventh, lending a modal flavor as the E-flat Major chord appears.
station_9 The Ninth Station: Jesus falls the third time
The low D pedalpoint is heard again, and in the development of the rhythmic motion in these "falling" verses, the middle voices have steady half notes throughout. The pedalpoint does not resolve at the end and the d minor tonality is maintained. There is no rise this time.
station_10 The Tenth Station: Jesus is stripped of His garments
The barest accompaniment is given, mostly whole notes, over which the melody floats in quarters. The d minor tonality persists — crucifixion is imminent.
station_11 The Eleventh Station: Jesus is nailed to the cross
The melody, as always, moves in quarter notes; the middle voices have uniform half notes. But the pedal has heavy, octave leaps, down and up and down again, in whole note Ds — these show the hammers driving in the nails. The tonality stays with d minor.
station_12 The Twelfth Station: Jesus dies upon the cross
As the Savior's mortal life ends he gives up His spirit. In this unique verse, all harmony is gone — the setting is simply unison melody, played in octaves in the manuals and doubled in the pedal.
station_13 The Thirteenth Station: The body of Jesus is placed in the arms of his Mother
Here, in the most tender of all the Stations, we return to manuals alone, and to the F Major tonality — the Roman execution has been accomplished. The descent from the cross is evident in the eighth note passing tones that appear for the first time, and here, always descending.
station_14 The Fourteenth Station: Jesus is placed in the tomb
The composer has a deep love for the music of J.S. Bach, and who better than Bach to express the profound emotions surrounding death. The last accompaniment is in the style of a Bach chorale, with beautiful independent vocal lines, abundant eighth note motion and superb harmonic progression. From d minor to F Major, the body of the Lord is taken from crucifixion to peaceful rest in the freshly-hewn tomb.

Don't let the detailed descriptions above lead you to think that these settings are overt or obvious. The congregation will not at first grasp the nuances present; but after several weeks, or maybe several Lents, the music of Stations will help to open up the meaning behind the meditations. This collection has benefit for the congregation, well beyond the simple variety it holds for the organist. Order your copy here.

The station images shown on this page are photos of the wood-carved Stations found in Saint James Catholic Church in Charles Town, West Virginia. They were carved by young (mostly teen-age) artists of Artesanos Don Bosco in Peru. This school was begun by Italian Salesians in 1976 to teach the youth in the Peruvian Andes a trade.

CanticaNOVA Publications / PO Box 1388 / Charles Town, WV 25414-7388
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